Walk past Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine and you’ll likely hear it: a high-pitched xylophone tone and hypnotic chanting. This is the signal that a gae-bon dance is about to start. And at the famous shrine, the dance happens hundreds of times a day, rain or shine, with a troupe of classical dancers and musicians always ready to perform.
Gae-bon is a ceremony to help worshipers commune with Phra Phrom, the Thai equivalent of the four-faced Hindu god Brahma, depicted in the magnificent statue at the centre of the shrine. But more than that, it’s intended as an offering, made in gratitude once the gods have heard a prayer and fulfilled a wish. Most Thais, even those who don’t consider themselves religious or superstitious, will have at some time knelt before a Buddha statue or a Hindu shrine and asked for divine assistance, promising in turn to make an offering and otherwise make merit if their wish is granted. Most commonly, they might ask to be admitted to a prestigious school, for help in closing a business deal or for a baby to come into their lives.
In exchange, depending on their financial abilities, they might promise to present the gods with a feast or a treasured possession or a giant garland of flowers, or they might offer to perform a ceremonial dance themselves.
But for the many worshippers who promise an offering of dance, they do not have to perform it themselves. Instead, there are adept musicians and dancers available for hire. The fee depends on how many are employed. Lasting two to five minutes, a gae-bon dance is usually performed by two to eight veteran dancers. The music is a traditional song with highly devotional lyrics. The worshippers who commission the performance customarily sit in front of the troupe during the performance, and their names are sung at the outset to announce to the god who has come to fulfil their vow.
The bandleader chooses the song from a repertoire of about 50, but all are equally sacred. It’s not uncommon for the dancers on peak days to perform hundreds of times, non-stop from morning until late evening. The shimmering costumes, slow steps and elegant hand movements are enough to mesmerise its human audiences and perhaps, as the devout hope, the divine.